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Sun., Oct. 4
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City of Watertown, firefighters argue in dispute over building inspections


State Supreme Court Justice Hugh A. Gilbert will determine whether the city of Watertown must go to arbitration with its firefighters over the issue of which city department should conduct commercial building inspections.

Watertown Professional Firefighters Association Local 191 and the city are at odds over a decision to have the code enforcement office handle all building inspections, a responsibility firefighters undertook for decades.

In February, the union filed a demand with the state Public Employment Relations Board seeking arbitration of its claim that commercial code inspection was to be done by its members. The city is seeking a court order staying the arbitration, arguing the issue is not subject to arbitration because the change in inspections resulted from a change in local law. A hearing was held Monday for both sides to argue whether the matter should be allowed to proceed to arbitration.

The city formally removed the firefighters from the inspection when the City Council enacted a local law in 2005 that said the code enforcement supervisor, as well as inspectors within the code enforcement office designated by the city manager, are to be responsible for commercial building inspections. In 2012, two firefighters were assigned to the code enforcement office to help code enforcement inspectors with the work.

The firefighters countered the work should be done exclusively by union members, not civilians in the code enforcement office, in part because the inspections give firefighters a chance to familiarize themselves with the interior of buildings, information that could be beneficial during a fire.

“The Fire Department is not empowered to conduct these inspections, plain and simple,” Robert J. Slye, the city’s attorney, told Judge Gilbert.

Mr. Slye said the inspections the Fire Department conducted were riddled with errors and seldom resulted in any enforcement action. He said the city agrees that, for the sake of firefighters’ safety, the firefighters should familiarize themselves with commercial buildings, but it should be a voluntary process “done without an inspection sheet in one hand and a violation notice in the other.”

The union’s attorney, Nathaniel G. Lambright, Syracuse, told Judge Gilbert taking away the firefighters’ ability to conduct the inspections exclusively represents a change in union members’ contracts, making the change subject to arbitration. He said the union will not ask an arbitrator to restore inspection duties to all line firefighters, but “we’re just saying that this work has to be done by firefighters,” even if that means being done by the two members assigned to the code enforcement office.

Judge Gilbert reserved decision on whether to allow the matter to proceed to arbitration.

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